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Nearly three million acres have been returned to Tribes in a decade-long federal program

A green sign that reads "Entering Wind River Indian Reservation" stands in front of a background of grasslands, fences, telephone lines and snow-capped peaks.
Courtesy of Wyoming Public Media
Both tribes that are a part of the Wind River Indian Reservation participated in the federal land buy-back program.

News brief: 

Nearly three million acres in 15 states have been returned to Tribal nations through a decade-long program with the U.S. Interior Department. Federal officials want to continue to make it easier for Indigenous communities to acquire land and place it in trust ownership.

The history of this land buy-back program goes back to an 1887 federal act, which divided up reservation lands among individual citizens of Tribes – rather than the nations themselves. One of the goals was to assimilate Indigenous communities into mainstream culture and encourage farming and ranching, but it often resulted in Native Americans losing their land.

Over the course of several generations, parcel ownership became fractured and was at times sold to non-Native people, which created massive challenges for Tribes.

“The checkerboard system of land ownership on many reservations historically left communities and landowners unable to make basic decisions about their homelands,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a statement. “The Land Buy-Back Program’s progress puts the power back in the hands of Tribal communities to determine how their lands are used — from conservation to economic development projects.”

In 2012, a settlement agreement gave more than $1 billion to the Interior Department to facilitate voluntary sales from individual landowners to Tribal trusts. In 10 years, officials worked out deals between about 50 tribes and 123,000 landowners. Communities in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Idaho all participated.

“Land consolidation partnerships with Tribal Nations benefit both landowners and Tribes, including opportunities for increased agricultural operations, economic development, conservation, and cultural stewardship,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. “The lessons learned from the Buy-Back Program will help inform our ongoing efforts to reduce fractionation.”

Earlier this month, the Biden Administration announced new funding and policies to help “promote the next era of Tribal self-determination.” Indigenous communities will now have better access to information about funding sources available to them, and they’ll be able to enter into more co-stewardship agreements with government agencies to help manage federal lands.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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